Archive for September, 2011

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

September 8, 2011

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

If there was a short list of “love ’em or leave ’em” Canadian authors, I am pretty sure Michael Ondaatje would be joining Margaret Atwood at the head of the list. Both have their passionate defenders (and prizes to show their worth); both have their implacable critics (don’t ask Mrs. KfC what she thinks of Atwood). I am in the middle of both debates. Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is for me a major work of significant value and much of Atwood’s early work also rates — but I have moved to the “over-rated” side of the argument with the last few works from both authors. Without giving too much away in the first paragraph of this review, I’d say The Cat’s Table has pulled me back to the positive side of neutral as far as Ondaatje is concerned.

While the narrator is now an older adult, the central story of The Cat’s Table concerns his 11-year-old self who boards a ship in Colombo, Ceylon (a couple of decades before it became Sri Lanka), headed for public school in England. That scenario has some obvious autobiographical references for Ondaatje, so let’s deal with that first by reproducing his Author’s Note from the end of the book:

Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional — from the captain and crew and all its passengers on the boat down to the narrator. And while there was a ship named the Oronsay (there were in fact several Oronsays), the ship in the novel is an imagined rendering.

If you are one who has been following this year’s Man Booker Prize, that description is going to raise comparisons with Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and I would say those comparisons are entirely fair. Like the Barnes, this too is a novel of reminiscence, an adult quietly but deliberately looking back on how a specific period in his youth permanently influenced his life.

To establish a sense of Ondaatje’s narrative voice, here is an excerpt from the opening pages as his narrator boards the ship headed to England from Colombo:

He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet — nothing ahead of him existed — and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there.

The young narrator is on his way to England where he will be met by his mother, estranged from his Ceylonese father for some years (how will she recognize him when he arrives, he wonders), but first there is the lengthy voyage across the Indian Ocean, up the Gulf to the Suez, across the Mediterranean and finally on to the Mother Country. It is a new life to be lived with this weeks-long, floating “world” as its transition, its onboard “home office” aptly captured by “the Cat’s table” which supplies the novel’s title.

It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him.

The cat’s table on the boat doesn’t only feature the boys. Mr. Mazappa is also there — he plays the piano with the ship’s orchestra and gives piano lessons in the afternoon. Another “person of interest” is Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who is doing safety research on the boat and has the run of the ship which the three boys will exploit to good effect. And there is a botanist and a tailor — in the “world” of the voyage, each of these characters will have a role. Also on the boat but travelling in first class and hence not a regular at the table is the narrator’s beautiful cousin, Emily, and a friend of his family who is nominally his chaperone for the voyage, although her cabin is several decks above his.

The contained world of the voyage will occupy most of the first half of The Cat’s Table and, given that not much happens in this book (smuggling a dog on board is a major plot development), I won’t be offering any spoilers. In true Ondaatje fashion, he brings to life this contained cast and creates his own version of “drama” as the Oronsay moves toward the United Kingdom and the narrator’s new life. There are a series of set pieces that are as rewarding as any I have read this year as Ondaatje engages the story-telling side of his tool-kit.

Story-telling is only part of his kit, however. It has been a feature of the author’s recent work, particularly in his last novel, Divisadero, that it takes a dramatic narrative turn midway through the volume and the author begins, almost literally, a different book. That happens in The Cat’s Table, although with much less of the disruption than I found in Divisadero. Once Ondaatje has established the onboard characters and the narrator’s attachment to them, the novel moves more and more into how this voyage and the people whom he met on it have influenced the rest of his life.

Again, not much happens (if you want “action” in your reading, this is not a book for you) and I don’t want to spoil. But I do have to say that the latter half of the novel had me completely enrolled as the narrator looked back on how this sea voyage had sowed the seeds for the rest of his life.

The resulting picture is ephemeral and incomplete — in visual terms, it is Impressionist, not realist. Ondaatje only gives us some elements; the reader needs to fill in the missing gaps, with the help of the background provided in the first half of the book. Inevitably, as is true of any “memory” novel, some aspects simply cannot be explained or have been distorted in the narrator’s mind. Normally, I don’t like to supply quotes from late in the book, but I will make an exception in this case since I do think it frames the entire book without giving anything away. It occurs as the Oronsay lands in the United Kingdom:

As soon as I reached the foot of the gangplank I lost sight of Cassius and Ramadhin. A few seconds had passed and we were separated, lost from each other. There was no last glance or even realization that this had happened. And after all the vast seas we were not able to find one another again in that unpainted terminal building on the Thames. Instead, we were making our way through the large crowd nervously, uncertain as to wherever it was that we were going.

The Cat’s Table does not so much tell a story (although it does do that as well) as sketch the outlines of another one — for me, the best part of it was the way that it set my mind rolling on similar aspects of my own history and encouraged me to fill in those gaps. That is a substantial accomplishment for any novel. Certainly, I was in the right frame of mind for it (and I won’t be fighting any reader who finds this novel too unfocused to meet their needs) — for this reader, The Cat’s Table was a most rewarding achievement.

2011 Giller Prize longlist

September 6, 2011

EDIT: It is going to be a hectic time for the next few weeks with four of us working on this 17 book list, so let’s start getting visitors used to it. Trevor has posted his review of The Free World, by David Bezmozgis — he liked it somewhat less than I did, but still found value. You can read his full review here. Here is a teaser from his opening paragraphs:

Last year The New Yorker included David Bezmozgis when they highlighted twenty young fiction writers in their “20 Under 40″ series. Bezmozgis’s piece, “The Train of Their Departure” was one of my favorites, a somewhat rare case when I felt like the excerpt from a novel worked as a complete and interesting short story. The novel it came from is The Free World (2011), which was recently placed on the Giller Prize longlist. KevinfromCanada considers this one of his favorite books of the year. I personally thought the short story was better (his debut, Natasha, was a highly regarded collection of short stories; The Free World is his first novel). However, don’t take that to mean I’ll be putting up a fight should this turn out to be a contender as the winner of the Shadow Giller; it’s a wonderful book.

The book begins with dislocation. We are on a train platform in Vienna, which is neither the origin nor the destination for the Krasnansky family. It is 1979, and, somewhat against the odds, they have just left Soviet Russia and are headed to Rome, thence to who-knows-where — maybe the United States, maybe Australia, maybe Israel, maybe even Canada. The first member of the family we meet is the philandering Alec. They family has arrived in Vienna and must transfer all of their luggage from one train to the next, but Alec takes a moment to look around at the many people in transit.

Head to Trevor’s site for more (and read on for my quick thoughts and a link to my original review). And now, back to a look at the entire Giller longlist:

The Real Jury (authors Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman and Andrew O’Hagan) have already produced their first surprise — a longlist of 17 books (including the Reader Choice addition) instead of the expected 10 to 12. Having had a quick scan of publishers descriptions, I would have to say they had a reason to include so many books, although they have set an impossible task for any individual who wants to read the entire longlist before the shortlist announcement Oct. 4. After my disappointment with this year’s Booker longlist, I am very much looking forward to this one and will get to them all eventually.

The lengthy list produces some challenges for the Shadow Giller Jury in making good on our promise to have at least one of us read each of the 17 titles before Oct. 4, but after some quick exchanges this morning, I am pretty sure we can do it. I have reviewed four titles already, have read three more (reviews will go up over the next week) and have two more on hand. Trevor Berrett at the Mookse and the Gripes knows his short stories so he will be our lead on the three story collections on the list (I’ll pick up what he doesn’t get to). Alison Gzowski and I will co-ordinate our reading to make sure we get to the titles from smaller publishing houses. And we are turning first-time juror Kimbofo from Reading Matters free to read what interests her (and is available — a lot of these titles are a challenge to get in the UK) at the longlist stage.

(A short aside on the Reader Choice addition, a contest run by media sponsor CBC and the Giller organization: The “winner”, Extensions, by Myrna Dey, comes from the small publisher, NeWest Press, and looks to be an interesting, if overlooked, title — rather than the result of some kind of online campaign.)

We do promise we’ll all do our best to read the entire shortlist when it is announced.

I’ve included links to my original titles on the four that I have read and have provided short descriptions of the others I have on hand. If you click on the cover image of any of the 17, it should take you to the publisher’s page on the novel. I hope visitors here will have as good a time as the Shadow Jury intends to with this prize — we are excited to be under way.

Reviews already posted here

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. Undoubtedly one of my favorite books of the year, if this one does not make my personal Giller shortlist it means that there are some truly great books on this longlist. The Krasnanskys are Latvian Jews, part of the diaspora from the USSR in 1978. We meet them first on a railway platform in Vienna but most of the novel is set in Rome, the stopping off point where they await (and scheme for) their eventual destination — perhaps the U.S. or Canada or Australia or, by default, Israel. The patriarch is a Soviet hero with his own conflicted memories, the sons are looking to the future in their own selfish ways. The women, fortunately, have some sense of current reality to them. An excellent novel which reflects Bezmozgis’ own family history — he is a very, very good writer.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Already short-listed for the Booker Prize, this novel is the stunning success of 2011. A noirish Western (a natural for the Coen brothers to make into a movie, but the rights went to John C. Reilly), the brothers of the title are two hired killers on their way to gold-rush California to “execute” a contract. The narrator, Eli, is questioning his violent trade, his brother Charlie shoots first and asks questions later. From those who have read it, there is virtually unanimous agreement that deWitt has produced a highly readable novel, even for those who don’t much care for the traditional genre. Check out Trevor’s review here.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. Author Edugyan landed the daily double today — this novel also made the Booker shortlist. Set in Berlin and Paris as the Nazis make their move in 1939, the perspective of the novel comes from three black jazz musicians who had gone to Europe to escape Jim Crow America. I had some problems with the novel on first read, I admit, but I am looking forward to giving it a second read. And I am delighted for the author — the book was scheduled for publication early this year, but got lost in the Key Porter publishers shutdown. Thomas Allen & Sons have rescued it and deserve thanks for making such an interesting volume available to readers.

Touch, by Alexi Zentner. My favorite of this year’s New Face of Fiction titles, this is a multi-generational frontier story, set in north-eastern British Columbia — an Anglican priest returns to the gold rush country community founded by his grandfather, developed by his father and where he was born and raised — the return sparks a train of memories. It is a humane and touching story that impressed many UK readers on the Man Booker forum, although it proved too challenging for that jury to put on its longlist.

Reviews to come soon

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Yes, it would have been a surprise if this book was not on the longlist. It has strong autobiographical overtones — an eleven-year-old boy boards a ship in Ceylon on his way to school in England in the 1950s, although the point of view of the novel comes from many decades later. An excerpt (which is faithful to the book) was published earlier this year in the New Yorker — for a fuller description and discussion, check out Shadow Giller juror Trevor’s post here.

A World Elsewhere, by Wayne Johnston. The Shadow Giller already owes Wayne Johnston $50,000 from 1998 when we awarded him the prize for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams — the real jury gave theirs to Alice Munro. Johnston opens his novel in his native Newfoundland but most of it takes place on the author’s version of the Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, in North Carolina — he calls his family and estate Vanderluyden, in tribute to the Van der Luyden family of Edith Wharton’s exceptional novel, The Age of Innocence. It does have echoes of both Wharton and Henry James.

A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. I am a Vanderhaeghe fan from a way back and this was my “most looked forward to” book of the fall — I’ve read it and it met my high expectations. The third volume in his loose Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing were the first two — you don’t have to read them first), this one set in 1876 takes up “settler” life in Western Canada’s Cypress Hills country and Montana shortly after the Sioux massacre of Custer and his troops. The author again does an excellent job of exploring the tensions between European settlers and the First Nations of the West — a far different take on theWestern novel than deWitt’s, set in a different area but same era.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. Given what has happened with National Hockey League “enforcers” in the last few months (three have died over the summer and there is substantial controversy in the hockey world), Coady has produced a timely novel if the jacket description is accurate: “Against his will and his true nature, the hulking Gordon Rankin (“Rank”) is cast as an enforcer, a goon, by his classmates, his hockey coaches, and especially his own “tiny, angry” father, Gordon Senior. Rank gamely lives up to his role — until tragedy strikes, using Rank as its blunt instrument.” I am a sports fan, so the premise intrigues me.

The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott. This novel is not scheduled for release until Sept. 27. Endicott made a splash with her first novel, Good To A Fault, which was Giller short-listed among other honors. This one features three teenage sisters who are in the world of vaudeville in the World War I years — an intriguing premise, I must say.

Reviews to come later

The Meagre Tarmac

The Beggar's Garden, Michael Christie

Extensions, Myrna Dey

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, ZsuZsi Gartner

Solitaria, Genni Gunn

Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock

The Return, Dany Laferriere

Monoceros, Suzette Mayr

2011 Man Booker shortlist

September 2, 2011

The “Real” Jury’s shortlist

The strangeness of the 2011 Man Booker continues with the shortlist. Two of my choices, including my runaway favorite, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers made the list. The other four come from the amorphous group that I called ordinary (click on the title for a link to my original review):

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

A few observations:

— By declining to shortlist Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Children and Sebastain Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, the jury has completed its Sarah Palin-like Going Rogue, act. With the new entry rules, there were some 40+ entries available from previous winners or listed authors. Only Barnes and Birch remain. As with Palin in politics, there is nothing quite like someone actually going rogue to remind us that the status quo might not be as bad as we thought it was.
— Two Canadian authors do make the list — deWitt and Edugyan. We might have much to talk about in my next post in a couple of hours when the Giller longlist comes out if neither happens to make it (although I doubt that will be the case).
— The jury’s taste for “action” books is obvious — deWitt, Miller, Birch and (arguably) Edugyan all fit that general description. While I didn’t find any of those books “bad”, I did find all but deWitt quite ordinary, even for their genre. The other three all started with interesting ideas, but failed in the execution. It has to be said that above average writing is not a feature of this short list. Those who look for stimulating prose in their fiction will find this year’s list even more disappointing than I do — except for Barnes (and the not-very-good dialect in Kelman), this is a group of straight-forward narrators.
— All of which means that while the book I think is by far the best of this year’s longlist is still around, I don’t have high hopes for it as the eventual winner. That would be out of step with everything this very strange jury has decided so far.

KfC’s pre-announcement predictions

I have abandoned The Last Hundred Days at page 138 (the plot is ploddingly obvious, the characters paper-thin — but I will return to it if it makes the shortlist) so my 2011 Booker reading is complete, except for possible rereads once the shortlist is out.

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors here that I found this year’s longlist featured some very ordinary novels — I have difficulty seeing what the jury found prize-worthy in more than half the 13 books. Despite that, I think that a decent shortlist is possible (although it would feature a couple of unlikely choices).

Here’s my personal shortlist, listed in order (click on the title to link to the original review). Your own list would be more than welcome in comments. I’ll update this post with the official shortlist when it is announced on Sept. 6.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. My favorite by a wide margin, this slim (150 pages) novel has all the makings of a classic. Tony Webster’s contemplation of his past — an exploration of the difference between shame, guilt and remorse — is sensitive, perceptive, even heart-warming in its way. Some readers have found the uncertainty in the book frustrating; I thought it added to the realism. This book would be an entirely worthy winner.

Far To Go, by Alison Pick. Okay, there is some national chauvanism in my ranking since this is a Canadian novel which first appeared here last year, but I found it held up very well as I explored the other twelve. The story is built around the Kindertransport “child rescue” initiative in the months before World War II broke out — for those who liked Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room a couple years back, this book also features the misplaced optimism of a Jewish family in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Like Mawer, Pick includes a modern element which worked very effectively for me.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. I am surprising even myself with this high ranking of a Western in a competition supposedly devoted to the “literary” novel, but deWitt does deliver on his engaging premise. Narrated by Eli Sisters, the story concerns two gunslinger brothers who have a contract to kill a prospector during the mid-1880s California gold rush. There is a fair bit of violence but that is not really the core of the book — Eli’s introspection and distinctive voice are what makes it work. And, as many have observed, it will make a fine movie.

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry. Poet and playwright Barry has produced another finely-crafted novel — The Secret Scripture was shortlisted in 2008 and this one has some similarities. The author has returned to the Dunne family which featured in two of his earlier novels. In this one, 86-year-old Lilly is looking back at a tempestuous life, most of it spent in America after fleeing Ireland because of the family’s perceived British connections. The first two-thirds was excellent but I am afraid after that that Barry’s plot-stretching became too much for me to rate it higher — even his ability with language gets strained.

Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor. A Victorian mystery centred on England’s legendary horse race, this one details the efforts of a large cast of characters, all determined to cheat the system to advantage and make money off the Derby. They are a thoroughly disreputable bunch and, while Taylor has some problems juggling his many storylines as the book winds on, the result is a very entertaining read. Most Booker shortlists feature a historical novel so I would not be surprised to see this rather unconventional choice make the real jury’s list.

The Stranger’s Child, by Allan Hollinghurst. This one ranks well below my top five (I did not rate it very highly at all on first reading) but I need a sixth pick and the author has at least produced an ambitious book, even if it did not succeed for me. Cecil Valance is a young poet who makes a weekend visit to a fellow student’s home just before the Great War. He produces a poem which will become a British schoolbook staple and the central feature of Hollinghurst’s narratives in a series of extended episodes in the decades that follow. For me, the writing got in the way of a potentially interesting story — others found that to be the strength of the book.

I am afraid the remaining seven were all disappointing works for me — “ordinary” was the friendliest description that I found myself using all too often when I wrote my reviews. Most of those seven do sound interesting when you describe the premise; the problem is that the authors simply did not deliver. In a year that featured many good novels (we can talk about them in comments), it was disappointing to see such marginal books on the longlist. I’m not going to try to rank them — the five that I read are all in a clump of “good idea, bad execution” from my point of view.

2011 — The Shadow Giller is back!

September 1, 2011

This is the 18th anniversary of the Giller Prize, Canada’s most recognized award for literary fiction. It is also the 17th anniversary of the Shadow Giller Jury, Canada’s most persistent (and perhaps annoying) tracker of the “real” Giller. We will let Jack Rabinovitch (the founder and financer of the prize in honor of his wife, Doris Giller) and invited friends celebrate the “real” Giller — we will have a good time with the Shadow version.

I do think this will be an exciting Giller Prize year. Already, three Canadian novels (Alison Pick’s Far To Go, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues) have featured on the Booker longlist. I was disappointed with that longlist and will go out on a limb here — I am confident that the 2011 Giller longlist will reflect more quality than the 2011 Booker longlist did. And I am pretty sure a number, but not that many, have already been reviewed here — stay turned for next Tuesday’s longlist announcement. The Real Giller Jury — authors Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman and Andrew O’Hagan — better not let me down because an outstanding list of books is available (to see all 200+ check out the list of potential nominees on the official ScotiabankGiller website).

The Shadow Giller was hatched in the lobby of the news room of the Calgary Herald when three reading souls came together quite by happenstance — Herald book editor Ken McGoogan, Calgary author Robert Hilles and myself, then the publisher of the Herald. As it happened we had all recently spent some time with one of that year’s Giller jurors — Mordecai Richler (McGoogan), Jane Urquhart (Hilles) and U of Ottawa English professor David Staines (me).

The intitial Shadow Giller deliberation was a 10-minute affair — Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (still my favorite book of all-time) prevailed in a two-to-one vote over Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. (Aside: If you visit here, Ken, could you explain why you made such a bad choice?)

Since that time in 1995 both the Giller and Shadow Giller have grown. We have tracked the growth of the main prize and will continue to do so. We used to promise a $50,000 prize to any winner we chose that the Real Jury didn’t — subject to available funding of course — and still owe Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall On Your Knees) and Wayne Johnson ( The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) the money. Needless to say (and a sorry to last year’s Shadow Giller winner, Alexander MacLeod for Light Lifting), we don’t promise that anymore.

A few years ago, the “Real” Giller added an international judge to its panel and the Shadow Giller was quick to follow. This year, I think we have overtaken them. Neither of the two longtime Canadian jurors (that would be me and Alison Gzowski, who produced CBC Radio’s Talking Books until its unfortunate demise) were willing to quit, so we will have four jurors this year.

Introducing (much fanfare, please):

Kimbofo from Reading Matters, one of my favorite book blogs. Kimbofo is Australian-born and raised, now resident in London (the UK not the Ontario one). Mr. Reading Matters is Irish so Kim frequently heads — and reads — north. She is my number one source on Irish fiction and I am delighted to welcome her to the Shadow Giller jury. While I look after Canada and the Caribbean, Kimbofo will look after the rest of the Commonwealth. The Giller is restricted to Canadian authors, but writers with non-Canadian roots have always featured in the list and there is usually a global flavor to it.

Trevor blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes and this will be his third year as a Shadow Giller juror. He not only brings a U.S. view to our thoughts, his interest in translated fiction adds a global perspective. He is a developing expert in Canadian fiction, I must say. And we do need a juror who is not steeped in Commonwealth tradition, which I think is a fair description of Trevor.

The Giller longlist (normally 12 titles) is a challenge for the Shadow Jury — since so many Canadian titles are released in September and not available internationally, we simply can’t get all of them into the hands of all jurors before the shortlist is announced. We promise that at least one of us will read each title, but that is all. I will do my best to provide reviews of all of them here eventually.

As for the shortlist (out Oct. 4), we will do our best to review all five on each of the three blogs (Alison doesn’t blog, but will be commenting everywhere). When Kimbofo or Trevor post reviews on their blogs, I will highlight some excerpts here with links to their full reviews. Of course, all comments are welcome, both here and on Kim and Trevor’s blogs. And sometime about Nov. 3 or 4 — some days in advance of the Nov. 8 Giller announcement, for sure — we will reveal this year’s Shadow Jury choice when visitors’ choices will also be most welcome.

So please join us by contributing your thoughts. The Giller Prize has become an internationally-recognized award — we on the Shadow Jury would like to reflect that here. We love reading and writing about the books but we love it even more when there are others on the journey so please join us. There is no entrance bar at all — if you like or dislike a book, just say so.

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